Astronaut Steve Bowen on the new lunar station - and living on Mars

Nasa's SpaceX Crew-6 commander speaks to The National about the future of space travel and sharing an out-of-this-world meal with the UAE's Sultan Al Neyadi

'I believe we have the technology and capability to embark on a Mars mission now,' says astronaut Steve Bowen. Antonie Robertson / The National
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For astronaut Steve Bowen, the idea of living on the Moon or travelling to Mars isn't just science fiction – it's an imminent reality.

“I believe we have the technology and capability to embark on a Mars mission now,” says Mr Bowen, commander of Nasa's SpaceX Crew-6 Mission that ferried a team of astronauts -including the UAE's Sultan Al Neyadi – to the International Space Station.

The submariner-turned-astronaut, who has plumbed the depths of Earth's oceans and rocketed to the stars, points to recent international agreements that will allow for the creation of a lunar station as well as a mission to the Red Planet.

The new station is part of plans by the International Artemis Alliance to return humans to the Moon. Alliance members include 40 countries, including the US and UAE.

The UAE's Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre has signed a deal to construct an airlock that will be used on a lunar-orbiting station being developed by Nasa.

The MBRSC will work with international companies to develop the airlock, the price of which has not been revealed, although it could cost as much as $100 million.

“The Artemis programme's aim is not only to return humans to the Moon but also to establish a foundation for further exploration, making the lunar station a gateway to Mars and the solar system,” Mr Bowen says.

“The human space station on the Moon is planned to be the first international outpost, 250,000 miles [402,000km] from Earth, and will then be merely a launching point for Mars and the rest of the solar system.

“We're paving the way for not just lunar exploration but also setting the foundation for eventual Mars missions and beyond.”

With 227 days in space and about 66 hours spent on 10 extravehicular activities – Nasa-speak for spacewalks – Mr Bowen knows better than most the potential challenges that could arise from venturing farther into the cosmos.

“The challenge lies in committing to and overcoming environmental, nutritional and radiation hurdles in space,” he says.

An astronaut on a mission to Mars could receive radiation doses up to 700 times higher than on Earth, according to the European Space Agency.

Other problems include the stress on the human body due to long periods of living in microgravity, which include bone loss, muscle atrophy and cardiovascular issues.

“So, the faster we can get from Earth to Mars, the better for the future of human space exploration” Mr Bowen says.

“I believe that long journeys in space are not beyond our capabilities any more. I believe it is just a matter of committing ourselves and the resources necessary to accomplish it.”

An important step towards making it possible, he says, is international co-operation, as space exploration is not only difficult but also expensive.

“Optimising the resources and benefiting from all the efforts is great for each country that participates and ultimately for all of humanity,” he explains.

Watch five top moments of Sultan Al Neyadi’s historic space mission – video

Watch five top moments of Sultan Al Neyadi’s historic space mission

Watch five top moments of Sultan Al Neyadi’s historic space mission

“It is clear that the greater the number of participants, the lower the individual costs.”

But it's not only about the cost.

“Each country's contribution brings something else to the discussion, as we look at things differently, and in space we need different ways of looking at different problems,” Mr Bowen explains.

“Each international contribution to space exploration programmes represents a different way of solving some issues. Working together truly leads to a stronger mission.

“Look at the International Space Station: 16 countries working together. Now, the International Space Station has been orbiting the Earth for 23 years, meaning we have approached the quarter century of permanent human presence in space thanks to our co-operation.”

During his time on the ISS, he came to realise “the immense capability” humans have when they work together.

“From carrying buckets of cement to building a platform in space, it's a testament to what humanity can achieve,” he says.

Perhaps nothing illustrated the beauty and importance of international co-operation more than when he shared meals with his fellow astronauts on board the ISS. He recalls, in particular, a meal with Dr Al Neyadi of the UAE that included dishes from his home country.

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“This was not just a meal; it was a meeting of cultures in the most extraordinary of settings – the orbiting laboratory circling our planet,” Mr Bowen says.

“Enjoying Arabian food provided by the UAE space team was a delightful experience. It was more than just sharing meals; it was about embracing and appreciating different culture, s even in space.

“The partnership with the UAE space programme, especially with Sultan Al Neyadi, epitomises the pioneering spirit and scientific commitment of the UAE.”

On the year-long trip to Mars, however, and on any colonisation of another planet, growing food as well as reusing water will be essential.

Over the past decades, there have been many attempts to grow food on the ISS.

“I can tell you we get enough tomatoes on the International Space Station,” Mr Bowen quips.

“Our continuous efforts to grow plants in space and the success of these experiments symbolise our advancing understanding of sustainable life beyond Earth.

“We came up with a system that we initially hoped would be able to recycle about 80 per cent or so of all the sweat and urine condensate on board the space station and use it on an ongoing basis.

“But this year, thanks to some additional systems we've added to the process we achieved 98 per cent in a short period of time, which is absolutely amazing.”

He adds that this achievement could also have benefits for water-scarce regions of Earth.

For Mr Bowen, these technological advances – as well as the growing spirit of international camaraderie when it comes to space exploration – means the future of space exploration is closer than we think.

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Updated: January 26, 2024, 7:42 PM